This week is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, compiled and printed by his friends seven years after his death. Thanks, Heminges and Cordell! Hard to imagine these pieces lost, literature that has given so much to the English-speaking world, on the level of the Bible. (If anyone finds Edward III, Cardenio, or Sir Thomas More, report back! Love’s Labor’s Won – the counterpart and sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost – is officially assumed lost, but some scholars believe it just got recycled into another play, probably All’s Well that Ends Well.) Shakespeare is the gift that keeps on giving, for each time we return to this source, we are nourished and calmed. This is in large part why I began the Shakespeare Project. None of these stories are new. They are as familiar as a cell memory buried deep in our muscles and brains, both delighting and comforting for their familiarity, stimulating for their insights and variations on themes. Ironically, this week’s play, Pericles, Prince of Athens, was not in the First Folio, nor in the Second Folio.
We’re all on the wheel of fortune. We like to talk about this fact in our home. It’s been a conversational topic here for almost two decades now. I am very lucky to have quality interlocutors. The main quality of riding on the wheel of fortune, and all humans do this whether they want to see it or not, is that we don’t know if we’re going up or coming down. If we are perceptive, we know what the zenith and nadir feel like. But we don’t know if we’ll stay there, or for how long. Then the wheel shudders once more to life, and we may sense an upward lift, or gravity’s pull.
Pericles, Prince of Athens is perhaps a new version of an old play charmingly titled The Patterne of Paineful Aduentures , translated by Lawrence Twine (1607)). If you don’t know the piece, and if you tend toward running with wolves and Campbell, go watch it. Written two years after Timon of Athens, Pericles takes a straight story and sprinkles it with Shakespearean magical realism – the kind audiences crave. It predates The Winter’s Tale by two years – another play I read and covered where a dead family comes back to life and is blissfully reunited.
The plot is knotty and very Princess Bride so I’m just going to place the Folger Shakespeare summary here:
The nautical tale of a wandering prince, Pericles is narrated by John
Gower, a poet from the English past. Gower explains that Pericles,
Prince of Tyre, hopes to win the hand of a princess in Antioch. When
Pericles learns that she and the king, her father, are lovers, he flees
for his life.
Pericles brings grain to Tarsus during a famine, but loses his ships
and men in a storm. In Pentapolis, Pericles wins a tournament and
marries the king’s daughter, Thaisa. With Thaisa pregnant, she and
Pericles sail for Tyre. Thaisa bears a daughter, Marina, at sea, but
apparently dies. Her coffin drifts ashore at Ephesus, where she is
revived and becomes a priestess of Diana.
Pericles leaves the baby Marina with the king and queen of Tarsus.
Fourteen years later, Marina, kidnapped by pirates, is sold to a
brothel, but her eloquence protects her. Told that she has died, a
grief-stricken Pericles rediscovers her. Guided by a vision from the
goddess Diana, Pericles and Marina reunite with Thaisa.
It’s basically the Book of Job combined with a few Easters. Pericles is lost in a wild wood, surviving turns in fortune as best he can (and frankly, as we would say in 2023, not too shabbily – he enjoys a great deal of privilege, hobnobbing in courts near and fair, marrying princesses, etc.). After getting the hell out of Antioch and the madness of an incestuous king guarding his nameless, nubile daughter, Pericles is shipwrecked on a beach where the fishermen thoughtfully haul up his father’s priceless battle shield. He cleans up and totes himself off to the court of Pentapolis where he bids again for the hand of yet another marriageable princess – Thaisa. They marry and have a baby in the middle of a shipwreck. Thaisa seems to have died in birth, so they take reasonable action to box her up and throw her in the stormy sea. Fortunately! she is found and, being not-dead, is revived by a beneficent temple priestess.
The baby Marina (“little ocean”) is given to Cleon and Dionyza at their court in Tarsus (handy to have all these noble friends to count on, but hey, nobles gonna noble.) Action springs forward many years and we find ourselves now with Marina, a compelling female lead, now also nubile and marriageable, but an unfortunate foster daughter indeed as her foster mother Dionyza wants her dead and takes a contract out on her. Yet, and fortunately (the wheel of fortune turns sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly!), some rowdy pirates show up to kidnap her. But unfortunately! the pirates sell her to a whorehouse. But fortunately! she’s such a persuasive genius that she talks her way out of all her clients, preserving her chastity and getting paid for her wit. But unfortunately! the whorehouse owners are outraged that she’d debating clients in the upstairs rooms. She gets herself contracted out as a tutor, and somehow is sent to cure a mentally ill man, doubled by grief.
But who is this man and how comes he to find himself in the same town as his presumedly dead daughter’s university-cum-whorehouse? Yes, he is Pericles himself. They discover one another, and then the goddess Diana visits Pericles in a vision to tell him that Thaisa is not dead either, but living in the Temple of Diana as a devotee, just up the way! They all hurry to the temple and the family is reunited, a little worse for the wear but happy once more.
Isn’t this how we’d all like difficult situations to conclude? Just make it all better. Make everyone be alive again so we can shake our heads at the terrible fortune that separated us and be together once more. Alas, we do not turn our own wheels of fortune. Silly mortals, the unseen hands of gods do that. It falls to us to gracefully accept our circumstances.
Without the wheel of fortune, this play would be plotless. No one wants to see a Pericles in which Pericles marries Thaisa and they peacefully raise their baby in Pentapolis. I do find amusing the Shakesperean reliance on shiprwrecks and pirates, but he was a man of his time when shipwrecks and pirates were to be found in all quarters.
Pericles perhaps has more to say about the lot of women. The nameless daughter of Antioch, Thaisa and her mother, and the girl Marina all give examples of how women may or may not manage their fortunes, in the ancient sense. The nameless daughter in Antioch, grossly and mockingly abused, breaks no shackles. Thaisa and Marina have their work cut out for them in this life, and they prevail by perseverance, faith, and wit. Even as they are frightened, disgusted, and discouraged by their changing circumstances.
I appreciate the story frame in Pericles in the form of Gower, a medieval poet who functions as a Greek chorus in this most Greek of plays. It’s consistent and knitting together some fantastical plot elements, and unlike in other plays (Taming of the Shrew, I am looking at you), it is maintained start to finish. I watched this play more than I read it – experimenting with audienceship – but as a cat steward once more, this line of Gower stuck with me:
The cat with eyne of burning coal / Now couches from the mouse’s hole
I watched in tandem with the text a wonderful production of this play produced by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 2021 (eek, what a year, speaking of the wheel of fortune). If you’re at all inclined to dip into Pericles, I recommend it (but am wondering why none of the cast are English?)
Next up! Antony and Cleopatra (1606), which is – once more – a totally new piece for me! I’m excited to be moving on in my personal remedial literature seminar.